Reimagining the global scholar in times of crisis

What does it mean to be a ‘global scholar’ in today’s complex and rapidly changing world? This is the question our latest book, The Global Scholar: Implications for postgraduate studies and supervision, teases out.

Our answers to the question today are different to those of only a year or two ago. This is partly because COVID-19 has drastically altered the ways in which scholars teach, conduct research, and engage with one another and with the world around them.

Drawing on authors from a range of contexts, including the United States, Chile, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Kenya, Israel and Australia, the book comprises 14 chapters and presents three conceptual frames – horizon, currency and trajectory – that are useful for understanding the evolving roles and identities of the global scholar and the relations between the global and the local, which inform these roles.


The first is the concept of ‘horizon’ which, drawing on the work of the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, refers to the “range of vision” of all that can be seen from a particular position. COVID-19 has changed the horizons of scholars in significant ways.

On the one hand, lockdowns, restrictions on mobility, isolation and working from home have narrowed their horizons and restricted travel and collaboration. On the other hand, the pandemic has, paradoxically, enhanced connectedness. Through enhancements in digital platforms like Zoom and Teams, scholars are sometimes more connected to international colleagues than local students.

Our book shows how shared horizons can be developed in a number of ways. One is through bringing together scholarly literature so that scholars have a common sense of what has been done and where the gaps are. Developing common doctoral standards across regions and frameworks for professional development can also enhance this ‘fusion’ of horizons.

On the other hand, global inequalities entail the danger that the research, literature and theories of the Global North dominate academic discourse and present themselves as the only valid ‘horizons’.

Scholars in the Global South have the responsibility to generate research, theory and practice that reflect the imperatives and perspectives of their own contexts – ‘decolonising the curriculum’ is one important moment in this process.


The second concept, ‘currency’, refers to the movements of people and ideas (‘currents’) and the developments of common credentials that inform the work of global scholars – for example, the international ‘currency’ of the doctorate.

The mobility of scholars and students has been a key dimension in the development of global scholars and scholarship over the centuries. While COVID-19 has severely curtailed physical mobility, it has arguably enhanced digital mobility through the plethora of online opportunities that have become increasingly available.

The doctorate has emerged as a valued ‘currency’ in our globalising world. Having a PhD is internationally recognised as a ‘gold standard’ for entry and advancement in academia.

However, there is a tension between universal ‘doctoral attributes’ and the relevance of doctoral studies to local contexts of development, especially in African contexts where ‘brain drain’ is a continuing problem.

More equitable and mutually beneficial arrangements include ‘brain circulation’ – where scholars move between countries and contexts – ‘brain networking’ and ‘brain retain’. This links to the other senses of ‘currency’ developed in our book: ‘currency’ as ‘relevance’ and as ‘intellectual charge’ – ideas that inspire and transform ways of thinking.


A third key concept related to the global scholar is ‘trajectory’. This is connected to the ‘current’ of academic mobility but refers more specifically to the particular course that the career of an individual or group takes.

These trajectories are informed by ‘internal’ factors experienced from ‘within’ such as motivation, talent, ambition, agency and perseverance. They are also shaped by external factors such as funding, opportunities and the changing academic workplace; for example, shifts from traditional disciplines to interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary fields.

One chapter in the book looks at factors influencing the trajectories of Chilean doctoral students as they return from overseas study to work in Chilean universities. Another, especially relevant in pandemic times, examines the role of emotions in students’ doctoral trajectories.

COVID-19 has disrupted individual trajectories. For example, it has meant that students have not been able to pursue studies overseas and prevented scholarly exchanges and visiting appointments. On the other hand, it has created opportunities: the scholarship of online teaching and learning has advanced rapidly, as has research around COVID-19 itself and its multifarious dimensions.

Perhaps most importantly, COVID-19 presents a Kairos, or moment of crisis and change, for global scholars. The pandemic has demonstrated how we are virally connected, that our destiny as a species is indissolubly collective.

It challenges scholars and universities to rethink the role of higher education as a public good. How can higher education contribute to a more just, sustainable and healthy world, in ways that connect the local and the global?

Whether global scholars rise to this challenge remains to be seen.

Peter Rule is an associate professor in the Centre for Higher and Adult Education at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. Eli Bitzer is professor emeritus in higher education studies and a past director of the Centre for Higher and Adult Education. Liezel Frick is an associate professor in the department of curriculum studies, director of the Centre for Higher and Adult Education and research fellow at the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy at Stellenbosch University. This article is based, in part, on their book The Global Scholar: Implications for postgraduate studies and supervision. African Sun Media, 2021.